January 12, 2008 -- Braunig Lake RV Park in San Antonio, TX
During the 18th century, Spain had possession of much of the Americas, including most of what is now the USA west of the Mississippi River. This was an immense geography populated only by a wide variety of native American Indians. Realizing the only way they'd have a chance to maintain control of these far-off and desolate lands, Spain sent forth Franciscan Friars into the new world to indoctrinate the natives in the religion and culture of the Spanish people. The thought was that since there are no native Spaniards to populate and control their lands in America, they'd create "Spaniards" from the natives. Thus, in the early 1700's, missions sprang up throughout the Spanish west. There were many failures and some successes, but by the mid-1700's there were 5 successful mission communities along the banks of the San Antonio River in what is today the City of San Antonio. They all used the San Antonio river as their source of water and crop irrigation -- so important in this naturally dry climate; and they were far enough apart so each had its own fields and livestock ranches, but close enough for a degree of common defense. From the northernmost to the southernmost was a distance of less than 10 miles.
The native American Indians that were drawn to these Missions were largely nomadic hunter-gatherers, living off the land and moving from place to place as they needed new sources of food. They were mostly peaceful people, but were beginning to feel pressure from other more aggressive Indian Tribes, such as the Apache and Comanche, who themselves were feeling pressure from the westward movement of civilization. The missions offered a relatively safe haven from the marauding tribes, and, because each mission was a self-sustaining community, they offered a steady supply of food. The trade-off was that they had to become Catholic, the religion of Spain, and they had to learn the Spanish language, and Spanish culture, skills, and crafts.
A Mission compound was basically a fort, a small community surrounded by walls for protection and defense. Often, the walls of the compound included rooms that housed the American Indians and their families. Inside the compound was a church, a convento (living quarters for the friars), and buildings for food storage and craft shops. The large open area in the middle of the compound was used for daily living, food preparation, gatherings, and probably a dozen other things. As I wrote earlier, each of these missions was a self-sustaining and independent community that needed very little from the outside world.
At their height, each mission had about 300 American Indians, only 2 or 3 Franciscan Friars, perhaps a couple Spanish soldiers for defense, and a handful of artisans and craftsmen. The objective was to teach the American Indians not only religion and a culture, but skills necessary for them to be independent once their training was done.
The mission period lasted for almost 100 years, from the 1720's to the 1820's. As time went on age and the elements took their toll on the Missions. The walls and buildings were often vandalized for their building materials. In the early 1900's, the historic value of these places began to be appreciated and efforts to preserve and reconstruct them began. During the depression the WPA did a lot of work here.
Today, 4 of the 5 historic missions are called the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park and are administered by the National Park Service. They are Mission Conception, Mission San Jose, Mission San Juan, and Mission Espada. The 5th, Mission San Antonio de Valero, is known today as The Alamo, and is administered by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.
During the past two afternoons, Dar and I visited each of the 4 missions of the Historical Park. Most of them are heavily reconstructed, but portions of original structures do exist. The best preserved mission building is the church at the Mission Concepcion which is 250 years old and almost all original. There are some original frescos on the walls and ceilings as a bonus to visitors who care enough to look for them.
The Missions, in the afternoon sunlight of South Texas, are very photogenic. We'll pop some photos into an online album for you to see.
Sorry for the History Lesson. Class dismissed.